I was eleven years old the first time I visited Washington, D. C. I was staying in Maryland for the week with my aunt, uncle, and cousins, and during that time we drove to Washington to see some of the sights. The greatest thing about that day trip was that I got to see the nation’s capital through the eyes of my wonderful aunt. She loved the National Cathedral and made sure we stopped there to view the gorgeous stained glass and Gothic architecture.
Over the years I have been back to Washington several times. One of my sisters lived there for quite a while, and I also spent some time in that vicinity on work-related excursions. It was a thrill to take our children for their first trip many years ago, which allowed us to see the city again through their wide-eyed, youthful innocence.
Honestly, it is impossible to see the monuments in DC too many times. We have seen them under clear blue skies and under the beautifully done artificial lights at night. We have seen them close up by walking along the National Mall from one to the other, and we have seen them from afar through car windows. We have visited several of the Smithsonian museums: the National Gallery of Art, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Natural History, to name a few. We have seen the splendid rotunda at the Library of Congress, strolled along Constitution Avenue near the Ellipse in front of the White House, explored historic Georgetown, driven through Chinatown, and enjoyed lunch in Foggy Bottom and dinner at Union Station. We once waited in line for nearly two hours to visit the Capitol Building, but the children grew restless and we decided to skip the interior tour. Then, as we wandered around to the steps facing the Mall, we watched a rally (I cannot recall the cause) going on at the front of the building: a display of the First Amendment before our very eyes – the Rights of Free Speech, Assembly, and Petition.
On this most recent trip we made a point of visiting the Newseum. It was superb! Long after I gave up journalism as a career, I am still a news junkie. Watching, listening to, or reading about today’s news makes us an eyewitness to tomorrow’s history. Especially compelling were the First Amendment exhibit and the Press Freedom Map of the World, and definitely step outdoors onto the sixth floor terrace to take a look around and snap some photos. The Berlin Wall exhibit was extraordinary, featuring pieces of the actual wall and a guard tower, as well as film from both the building of the wall and its dismantling. We watched some teenagers filming stand-up news in front of an image of the White House and paused to appreciate the enormous weight of the words used by Edward R. Murrow to describe the bombing of London in 1940. While all of the Smithsonian museums are free in Washington, the Newseum is privately run and costs about $20 per adult. It is absolutely worth the price of admission, and there’s a 15% discount available if you purchase tickets in advance online. Oh, and definitely make a point of visiting the restroom while you are there – you will leave laughing at the specialty wall tiles featuring some tremendously funny headline gaffs! Our only disappointment was that the Pulitzer Prize photo gallery was temporarily closed during our visit, so a return trip is absolutely necessary.
After lunch in the Food Section at the Newseum, we began to walk towards the Smithsonian Museum of American History, but Mother Nature intervened. My husband donned his light jacket with a hood and I opened my compact umbrella as the sky opened up to become a downpour in a matter of seconds. Drenched, we ducked into the nearby National Archives center. What a fortuitous opportunity! Every American should visit this remarkable place just to view the original Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Aged and difficult to read, they are kept under glass in low light and on display in the rotunda, which also features beautiful murals that depict the formation of our government. Also kept in the Archives are written records, photographs, patent submissions, maps, films, immigration records, military service records, and much more. They are all searchable, or you can simply sample what’s there by walking through their exhibits. Photography is not allowed in the National Archives, which admittedly was hard for me.
We dried out a bit during our walk through the Archives, and when the rain stopped we made another break for the American History museum. No such luck. The rain began again as a slight shower but quickly grew heavy and we detoured into the Natural History museum which was closer. The life sized elephant and whale displays are amazing and the Evolution exhibit was fascinating.
By then it was nearly time to meet our daughter for dinner, and fortunately the rain had stopped, so we walked to Union Station and got some spectacular photos of the Capitol Building against the post-deluge sky along the way.
For those of us who live in small town America, one of the hardest parts of visiting major cities is the very stark economic contrasts in the population. Sadly, in our nation’s capital, homelessness is evident everywhere and panhandlers are more bold than anywhere else we have ever traveled. We sat down on a bench briefly at Union Station, and a very tall and imposing man sat down right next to me, so close that our legs nearly touched, to ask for spare change. Because opening my wallet would have been a tremendous security risk, I lied and tried to be kind when I said, “I don’t have any cash.” He said, “I understand,” and got up and walked away. Another man approached us as we sat on a park bench, and a third circled our car at a stop light while holding out a plastic cup. We watched a woman in a busy intersection heckle a pedestrian until he tucked a few dollars into her plastic cup. We routinely donate to several charities, but I always feel like it’s too risky to pull money out of my wallet in these situations. It does make me feel bad, but personal safety is more important to me and if that makes me a bad person, then so be it.
You will also see and hear people from all over the world doing the same touristy things that we Americans are doing, visiting our national monuments and museums and soaking in the culture. They take pause at the Vietnam Wall just as we do, speaking reverently in hushed tones in foreign languages. They stand in awe at the massive Lincoln Memorial, gazing up towards the giant statue of a giant man and out over the reflecting pool towards the Washington Monument, taking selfies to demonstrate that they are standing in the shadow of great leaders.
If you’ll be visiting DC any time soon, these would be my recommendations: wear very comfortable shoes, decide exactly what your priorities are, scope out the map ahead of time so you can see just how far it is from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial and all points in between. If walking the Mall is not your thing you might consider one of the convenient services that rents motorized bicycles to get you between all of the monuments. The museums are open during the day and the monuments are all accessible and beautiful at night, so plan your time based on your priorities. Definitely use the Metro buses or subway system as much as possible. Driving in DC is a nightmare. The spoked wheel street layout must have looked terrific on paper in the horse and buggy days, but with millions of cars on the road now it makes very little sense and is much easier and even faster to walk from place to place. In addition, like other cities, parking is expensive. Just getting in and out on the infamous Beltway with its six lanes in each direction can be challenging, and the best times to tackle that are late at night or very early in the morning, I would say between 9pm and 6am, or on a Sunday when traffic is lighter.
Despite numerous trips, there are many things we have not done in The District. We have not visited the White House. We have not watched the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery. We have not been up into the Washington Monument. We have not visited the National Zoo to see the giant pandas, and there are a number of Smithsonian museums we have yet to investigate including the American History museum which eluded us this time due to rain. While I have walked through historic Old Town Alexandria across the river in Virginia, I have never visited George Washington’s home nearby at Mount Vernon.
We have visited in spring, summer, and winter, but amazingly have never been there when the cherry blossoms were in bloom. Perhaps that will be our next visit, especially since our most compelling reason to go now is that our younger daughter lives there, right in the heart of all the government and history and beauty and education and culture; right where she wants to be.